Beware the Grim Reaper and banish the energy takers

Jude is back! Action, age and anxiety are occupying the mind and pen of Liam Black as he revives his Letter to a Young Social Entrepreneur – a column he first wrote for Pioneers Post predecessor Social Enterprise magazine



Dear Jude –

Well done on starting your business! Action is what separates the wannabes and poseurs from the entrepreneurs and innovators. There are loads of great ideas in the world. I get at least half a dozen emails a week telling me about this or that fab idea which will transform the world and any time soon they are going to get started with it.

If we had more doers and fewer bloggers and tweeters maybe we’d get somewhere! Fewer conferences about innovation and more innovating, please. “Knowing is not enough”, said that non-stop doer Goethe, “we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

You start by starting. But where to start?

Have you heard of “pretotyping” I came across it when I hooked up with Alberto Savoia in the US. One of Google’s first wave of innovating engineers, he believes that we often start too big and not only waste time and money but end up committing ourselves to a path we later come to regret and have to unpick the damage done by the wrong kind of start. Alberto’s mantra is: “Make sure you are building the right ‘it’ before you build it right”.  His book is well worth a read – and it’s free!  

And once you act, you get anxious. Will it work? Where’s the money coming from? Where’s the bloody cash gone! Why doesn’t the world bend to my brilliance?

Get used to long days and sleepless nights, Jude. I thought the older I got the less worry there’d be. Sure, when you’re older, you are a bit more confident and there is less likelihood of making schoolboy errors (but no certainty!) and you should know how money works. In my twenties and thirties I worried that my passion for social change would mean that my young family’s well being would suffer. I feared looking a fool in the eyes of the world if my schemes didn’t work. I worried constantly about money – all the social businesses I have run were undercapitalised and so we were always gasping for air. 

My kids have gone and I have achieved some status and success in the eyes of the world and the people who matter to me. In middle age I started a business rather than stay on the CEO track. Sleepless nights worrying about not having a regular monthly salary for the first time in decades (yes decades!). But my big worry was status – if I wasn’t the CEO of the best-known social enterprise in the UK what was I? I ended up combining my mid-life crisis with a getting involved in the stress of a start up! Clever, eh?

Well into my fifties I worry that my time is running out and wonder if I am doing the best I could with my time and energies. One of the savage ironies of the human condition surely is that by the time you have learned how to live in the now there’s not as much now left! Youth is so wasted on the young.

Disappointment is built into being a social entrepreneur. I take great pride in all the socially enterprising things I’ve done over the years and I hope I have made some valuable interventions in peoples’ lives. But the truth is inequality is worse than ever in the UK and the waste of the talents of our youth is even greater than in the 80s under the Ice Queen Thatcher.

Jude, work on combining an unkillable optimism with a clear-eyed sense of the size of the task. Know that you probably won’t live to see the change you want. My good friends at Eden want to literally transform the environment. But what is taking up their time now? Letting loads of people go and restructuring the debt which has hobbled them since the beginning.  

Biggest reality check for me: having to make redundancies in social enterprises whose very existence was to create opportunities for the unemployed. It is soul destroying and the hardest way to learn that what we create is temporary and very vulnerable. However socially entrepreneurial you think you are, Jude, the Grim Reaper gives no special favours to social businesses – he will come to take your social business as readily as any other when times are hard and crisis hits.

You will also soon develop The Imposter Syndrome – that nagging fear that you don’t really know what you’re doing and someone is going to out you! Relax about that one. I have worked with hundreds of leaders of business of all sorts – from micro community projects to behemoth multinationals. I have yet to meet one who isn’t expecting the tap on the shoulder and the words, “Sorry. You’ve been rumbled. There’s been a terrible mistake. You really shouldn’t be here.”

So, Jude, stop worrying that you can’t stop worrying. John Lydon sang that anger is an energy. Anxiety can be an energy too if it drives you to work hard and never give up. But you’ve got to learn to master it. Surround yourself with people who energise you and expunge from your life and business cynics and energy takers. Today. 

Liam Black is co-founder of Wavelength. Contact him via or via Twitter